When will we ever learn,
When will we ever learn?
Steven the Belgian, my good companion for the last four days, has gone on ahead. I wish him well.
I am sitting in a large square in front of the Hotel de Ville eating my croissants and drinking my morning coffee. Pigeons coo about my feet, looking for crumbs. People walk about in the rather feeble morning sunlight, entering and leaving the square by little crooked streets which wind off in every direction. A musician hurries by, one instrument in his hand, the other on his back. Cyclists crisscross. Someone wheels his baggage from a hotel.
A young man walks around the centre of the square, darting in this direction and that, gesticulating wildly, shouting at nothing, not even the people who pass by trying not to notice him. In fact, he is careful not to shout at anybody, only the empty air, and the pigeons, and perhaps his black dog who follows him uncertainly. I fear for the dog when he makes him jump up onto a concrete bench. Is he going to harangue him? But no, he gives the dog a hug. Poor fellow, I am glad he has a loyal companion, perhaps the only living creature who loves him. He walks off, leaving the square, the dog trotting beside, wagging his tail, and looking up expectantly. What will the day hold for them?
Most of us sit alone at the tables, relaxing, enjoying the sun, contemplating the day ahead of us. But the peace is strained a little by a monologue from a woman a few tables across. Four women sit together, but only one speaks. The rest nod. And I try not to breathe in the fumes from a nearby smoker. Trucks deliver bottles and kegs with a clatter and a clang. Despite these minor inconveniences, I am content. Le bonheure est maintenant!
Like so many other cities in France, the central area has been closed off to all but service vehicles and the occasional bus, which get in and out by somehow making a barrier of bollards fall and rise as they pass over them. The square is huge, a sign of the south perhaps, where people spend more of their life outside, eating, drinking, and talking.
What an enlightened policy it is to give city streets back to the people!
I have spent the day in this wonderful town of Poitiers, strolling around, just soaking up the atmosphere. I have only had time to see a little of what there is to see.
I shouldn't say this, but to me, the cathedral seemed a big barn of a building, too wide for its own good, each of the side aisles being the width of the nave of a smaller cathedral. More impressive is the Romanesque church Notre Dame la Grande with its sober decorations in the nave. It was even more memorable for me for the beer I enjoyed afterwards on a terrace behind the choir. This is the France that I love.
The real treasure of Poitiers is the Baptistere Saint-Jean. Its baptismal pool, dating from the 5th century, was a witness to the first Christians in Europe. The rest of the building was restored in the 12th and 13th centuries. The painting on the mural of the side chapel also dates from this period.
When I asked a young woman where the cathedral was, she said, "Which one?" To me, this was a manifestation not of a secular France, but a new indifference towards and ignorance of la patrimoine, the heritage. No one would have given me that answer a generation ago.
Tonight, I am staying in perhaps the quaintest hotel I have ever stayed in, truly a lodging d'autrefois. I am on the third floor, of course, that's why it's so cheap (35€),and I reach it by climbing first to one floor, then the next, each time walking down a corridor to find the next flight of stairs. There is no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of rooms. Little clusters at the same level have their own staircase. Perhaps because I am a pilgrim, I am staying in the room known as Angelique, but I could have been put in Absinthe, Aneth, Aubepine, Basilic, or had I paid a little more, Bergamot, Cannelle, Camomile, Capucine, Citronelle, Eglantine, Fenouil, Giroflee, Guimauve, Marjolaine, Mascade, Melon, Pavot, Pistache, Primevere, Rose, Valeriane, or Vanille. The price increased as the alphabet progressed.
The first shall be last.